Business Leaders Willing to Help City Find Successor.
About a year from now, a spartan abandoned warehouse at the former GRU compound south of downtown Gainesville will open as the home of a fast-growing local maker of small spy planes.
Anthony Lyons calls plans to transform the warehouse into a manufacturing and office space for Prioria Robotics Inc., a catalyst for the Power District, a 16-acre site that Gainesville Regional Utilities left when it moved to its new operations center on North Main Street.
“Catalyst”—a person or thing that precipitates an event or change—aptly describes Lyons.
Over the past five years, Lyons has been pivotal to a flurry of economic development as manager of the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, a post he left Dec. 1 for a job in Boise, Idaho, which he calls a step up in his career ladder.
His legacy, both in bricks and mortar and philosophically, are impressive, including 1,500 housing units, the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida, the new Hampton Inn downtown and a new gateway landscape sculpture for East Gainesville.
Beyond what’s tangible today are the building blocks for future economic activity, including:
- Creating more flexible zoning in the 40-acre Innovation Square area between the UF campus and downtown;
- Launching plans to revitalize the Gainesville Technology Enterprise Center and develop light manufacturing plants and other businesses nearby along Hawthorne Road;
- Helping flesh out plans for the 30-acre Depot Park, which include rebuilding the train depot and leasing a two-acre site to the Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention; and
- Hiring a talented and visionary staff that includes an architect and an engineer as well as planners and a finance manager.
Hard Shoes to Fill
“Anthony redefined what we expect of the CRA director,” says City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins.
Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, says Lyons will be missed. “It’s quite a loss,” Christensen says. “He did an awful lot of great things. He’ll be hard to replace as a visionary and consensus-builder.”
Christensen says that he and other members of the business community are available to assist City Manager Russ Blackburn in selecting Lyons’ replacement. “We would welcome any involvement,” Christensen says.
Blackburn says he plans to form an interview panel that includes business leaders and involves members of the advisory boards for the city’s four redevelopment districts in the search, as he does whenever he replaces a department director.
“It’s important to engage people who work closely with a department and to hear their perceptions,” says Blackburn, who has appointed Kelly Fisher, the CRA’s project coordinator for neighborhood planning, as interim director.
Transforming City’s Economic Development Approach
In one sense, his job was simple, Lyons says. “When you have great relationships, great things happen,” he says.
In another sense, Lyons’ accomplishments were Herculean. He took a little-known agency with a narrow mission and transformed it into the vehicle that was critical to many of the changes in the city’s economic landscape.
Traditionally, the CRA’s role has been to invest in infrastructure, such as roads, sewers and landscaping, that provides a foundation for areas in decline. Gainesville, like many other cities, funds CRA projects with what is known as tax-increment financing, which is based on increases in property taxes that occur as property becomes more valuable in a redevelopment district.
Lyons expanded beyond that role when he came to Gainesville in 2006. As time went on, Blackburn gave Lyons responsibility for all of the city’s economic development activity.
Lyons, who studied art history as an undergrad, brings a historical perspective on the nature of community to the job. He was used to small-town politics from his work in economic development in Claremont, N.H. He also identifies with entrepreneurs, having started one of the nation’s first pre-paid phone companies.
Responding to Prioria’s Needs
Lyons’ business experience came into play as he worked with Prioria, which has outgrown its space in the Wells Fargo Bank Building on Main Street and was considering all options, including leaving town.
“We had to get in the heads of the employees and the brand,” Lyons says. “We needed to understand their attitude, their culture and their business.”
Bryan da Frota, Prioria’s CEO, credits Lyons with being steadfast in his relationship with the company. “I’ve known Anthony for years,” da Frota says. “We built up a rapport.”
Over the past two years, Prioria’s sales jumped 600 percent, due to increased demand for its two-foot long aircraft from the Air Force, Navy, Army and the Canadian military for its planes that military personnel carry in a tube and launch by hand.
The company’s workforce has doubled from 20 to 40, stretching the limits of its space in the Wells Fargo Bank Building, da Frota says.
Lyons recommended four potential relocation sites, none of which worked out, da Frota says. “Anthony was patient and dedicated to the process,” he says.
When Lyons proposed the GRU warehouse, he showed Prioria examples of successful warehouse conversions elsewhere, da Frota says. “Anthony was very creative in pushing the envelope. It was brilliant.”
Once Prioria bought into the warehouse conversion, Lyons moved quickly on firming up details. “While he had been patient as we looked for a site, he picked up the pace and moved the deal to closure quickly when he needed to,” da Frota says.
A plus in the deal was that Prioria may be able to test-fly its planes at nearby Depot Park. “It’s important to be able try out things,” da Frota says. “Having a place for test flights was very attractive.”
Big Payoff for Hampton
While the CRA helped Prioria stay in town, the Hampton Inn & Suites brought new money into the local economy. The Hampton project is a great example of the use of redevelopment dollars, Lyons says.
The agency invested $750,000 to help develop the hotel’s site. Meanwhile, some of the investment is being recouped through taxes the hotel pays.
“There was a great payoff, with $12 million being invested in the building, and the Hampton bringing new jobs and new retail space to the community,” Lyons says.
CRA Accomplishments Well Recognized
Lyons’ accomplishments generated national attention when Fast Company magazine highlighted the Innovation Square design work that the CRA is doing with the help of Perkins+Will, an Atlanta firm that specializes in redevelopment in college communities.
In the magazine, Lyons emphasized that the planning for Innovation Square is very flexible, allowing for the market to dictate the balance among office, light manufacturing, retail and residential space.
“If you’re too prescriptive, what are you left with that allows people to plan for their own needs?” Lyons says.
The CRA received numerous awards during Lyons’ tenure. Lyons is proudest that in 2009 the CRA was presented the Award of Merit for Outstanding Achievement in Neighborhood Planning from the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association. The CRA staff itself developed the honored plan, which was for the Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street redevelopment area. “Most of the applications were based on the work of a consultant,” Lyons says. “We did all of the work ourselves.”
Other awards honoring work in which the CRA was involved include:
- Lyons being named the Innovation Advocate of the Year for 2010 by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce;
- The CRA office building winning an Aurora Award in the Southeast Building Conference’s design competition;
- Florida Redevelopment Association Award for Adaptive Reuse for the Bethel Station project in 2010; and the
- Florida Redevelopment Association Award for Planning Studies for the Southeast Gainesville Renaissance Initiative in 2008.
Lyons is going from a salary of $104,000 to one of $140,000 in Boise, and he’s moving from Gainesville, with a population of about 124,000, to a city with a population of about 206,000. He’s heading the Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency. “Anthony represents a revitalization of this agency,” CCDC board member and Boise City Council member David Eberle told the Idaho Business Review.